Punishment on the frontlines of public service delivery: Client ethnicity and caseworker sanctioning decisions in a Scandinavian welfare state

Mogens Jin Pedersen, Justin Stritch, Frederik Thuesen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

65 Scopus citations


Many public welfare programs give public employees discretionary authority to dispense sanctions when clients do not follow or comply with the policies and procedures required for receiving welfare benefits.Yet research also shows that public employees' use of discretion in decision-making that affects clients can occasionally be marked by racial biases and disparities. Drawing on the Racial Classification Model (RCM) for a theoretical model, this article examines how client ethnicity shapes public employees' decisions to sanction clients. Using Danish employment agencies as our empirical setting, we present findings from two complementary studies. Study 1 uses nationwide administrative data. Examining sanctioning activity at the employment agency-level, we find that agencies with a larger percentage of clients being non-Western immigrants or their descendants impose a greater overall number of sanctions and dispense them with greater frequency. Study 2 uses survey experimental data to build on this finding. Addressing concerns about internal validity and a need for analyses at the individual employee-level, we present survey experimental evidence that employment agency caseworkers are more likely to recommend sanctions for ethnic minority (Middle-Eastern origin) clients than for ethnic majority (Danish origin) clients. Moreover, we investigate how three caseworker characteristics-ethnicity, gender, and work experience-condition the relationship between client ethnicity and caseworkers' decisions to sanction clients. Although we find no moderation effects for ethnicity or gender, work experience appears to diminish the influence of client ethnicity on the caseworkers' sanctioning decisions. Overall, our studies support the likelihood that ethnic minority clients will be punished more often for policy infractions than ethnic majority clients-and that caseworker work experience mitigates part of this bias.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)339-354
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Public Administration Research and Theory
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 15 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Public Administration
  • Marketing


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